Nature and nurture


On one of those idle days I’ve been recently enjoying to the fullest, I came across an article about a Czech politician who had suffered a stroke. This, as it usually happens, resulted in his inability to move one side of the body, but what was worse, in an ability to formulate and understand speech. After he finally successfully recovered from the consequences of the brain disorder, he shared his experience with the media. What I find most intriguing about his story is the linguistic part: he says that after the attack he forgot most of his mother tongue and that he ‘lost’ all his English completely. He managed to gradually restore his Czech and now he is almost as active a user of the language as he used to be. However, as far as English is concerned, he’s learning it from scratch; as if he’s never been able to speak it at all before.
I don’t know how well he spoke English but I suppose that it was his L2 and I suspect that he had learnt it the way people usually learn L2s here. Obviously, it’s hard to imagine that in a matter of seconds one can forget everything they once learnt or acquired so laboriously – be it the mother tongue or an L2. Nevertheless, my train of thought didn’t stop there and I wondered; what would happen to me if I suffered a stroke; how much of my English would be lost for good? In other words, I wondered how deeply English is rooted in my psyche. On a more pragmatic level, it also occurred to me that losing my English would mean losing the source of my daily bread.
Anyway, my next thought was the difference between one’s L1 and L2. More precisely, I thought of my native speaking friends and the difference between their English and my English, which are obviously on totally different levels – and now I’m not talking about levels in the usual sense of the ELT word. For them English is part of their identity; and forgive me a little hyperbole here: it’s almost part of their DNA. For me this role is obviously played by Czech, no matter how much English I immerse myself in.
While my native English-speaking friends have all gone through the twinkle-twinkle-little-star period, I started with How do you do? and How are you, Mr. Smith? They were linguistically ‘nurtured’ by their – mothers, fathers, aunts, and godfathers, while I was raised in linguistic ‘foster care’. Skipping the early linguistic stages is like skipping mother’s milk and starting on fish and chips. Your body does get what it needs to grow but will it thrive?
There’s a heated debate going on about the discrimination of non-native speakers in the ELT business. As a NNEST myself, I follow the discussions with great interest and at the moment my take on this is that NNESTs can become as good English teachers as NESTs (or as bad, for that matter). I’d say that overall we complement each other; we learn from each other, we benefit greatly from the discussions we have, we ask each other how to say/explain this or that, share methods and approaches to teaching, and so on and so forth. Our lives, as well as our students’ lives, are easier if we exist side by side. But I know I’ll never be able to offer my students what those once nurtured have to offer. 

For example, I never had the courage to teach English to very young kids. Also, and to everybody’s utter amazement, I’ve never made a serious attempt at teaching English to my own children. The youngest age I’ve dealt with was 4 or 5 years of age. It was terribly challenging and deep inside I felt I wasn’t qualified to do that – not methodology-wise but from the linguistic point of view. Later on I taught at an elementary school for some time; we (yes, I deliberately use we) mainly learnt children’s rhymes in class and sang songs, so for the very first time I had the opportunity to learn what babies learn to do in an English-speaking environment. 
When I hear English-speaking parents talk to their kids, I realize this is a language I don’t know. They use strange vocabulary I don’t understand and structures I’m not familiar with. Not that I think I need this kind of language to do my job well, but I definitely feel frustrated that I lack something that is, to my mind, so fundamental. I believe that the politician who lost his English completely was in a similar situation, and thus his knowledge crumbled to ruins beyond repair, like a castle standing on pillars of sand. 

Maybe, apart from the time issue, i.e. when one actually starts learning a language and for how long, it’s a matter of some kind of emotional bond too – we easily forget knowledge we acquired in a purely cognitive way and we are likely to remember information we learnt affectively. It may well be a question of mere survival and economy – if the brain is seriously damaged, it simply evaluates the situation and decided which data is worth restoring. One way or another, the most outstanding organ and the most fascinating system for the expression of thoughts and feelings need each other, otherwise they cease to grow and develop.


About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
This entry was posted in Just pondering ..., Linguistic issues, NNST vs. NEST. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Nature and nurture

  1. Hey Hana,

    I've always felt that some of the very basic vocabulary that we pick up as children (shapes, less used colors, low frequency words for piece and parts of clothing) all help us build up a linguistically representation of our world. So if we learn a second language without that base, it seems reasonable that it would be a very fragile structure indeed. I've often taught a junior TESOL class, where students learn to teach just this kind of vocabulary and very basic grammar/phrases to small children in the hopes that it would help my students acquire some of this language that would otherwise be missed entirely. But if this helps make that L2 base more stable or not is a complete mystery.

    Thanks for the interesting read,


  2. Hi Hana, a really interesting post, and it reminded me of this story from a couple of years ago:

    Kind of similar, but almost the opposite. The man, an 81-year old Englishman, suffered from a stroke. When he woke up, he was unable to speak English, his mother tongue, but could communicate in Welsh. It turns out he had lived in Wales during WWII as a child, and had spoken Welsh with his aunt while he was there. When he moved back to England he stopped using it.

    I think this story touches on a few of the points that you mention. Mostly how we differ from learning languages as a child and an adult. I did a little work on the Critical Period Hypothesis for my MA (which I think I have mentioned in a comment on your blog before) and I wonder whether this could be connected?

    Anyway, it really is fascinating how language works (or doesn't work).


  3. Hana Tichá says:

    Thanks for your comment, Kevin. It’s interesting for me to hear that you have experience in training students in teaching very small kids by introducing the very basic language. I’m not sure whether this type of training is available here but it’d definitely come in handy. I have the feeling that people tend to think that to be able to teach English to very young kids, you need next to no language knowledge. After the fall of communism, during the English language boom, it was easy to get a job as an English teacher, especially at the lower levels of education. You can imagine how damaging it was for those generations of kids. At an age when kids are like ‘sponges’ soaking up languages quickly and relatively easily, they were taught by unqualified teachers who not only struggled with basic vocabulary and grammar but primarily with pronunciation. I don’t want to upset the proponents of English as lingua franca, but I guess Czech parents usually send very small kids to language schools because they wish them to learn English which meets the native speaker norms rather than the norms of basic international communication. So although I’m not in favour of the discriminatory practices I touch upon in my post, if I had once wanted to send my, say, 3-year-old son to a language school, I would have more likely done so only if the teacher was a native speaker. Or I’d rather teach him good Czech instead.


  4. Hana Tichá says:

    Interesting link, David. I think that Mr. Morgan’s story corroborates my surmise that the deepest and most fundamental survives all the ‘natural disasters’ of our lives. This story, for a change, reminded me of my deceased grandmother, who, at a relatively advanced age, remembered people and events from her early childhood but couldn’t remember her recent experience. Sometimes I think the key is the sequence and the circumstances under which we acquire knowledge, rather than the time (to touch on your mention of the Critical Period Hypothesis). I mean, some of our early memories are more salient just because they were the first experiences of this or that, and thus they’re more memorable than others, relatively more recent/important ones. This may be true for languages too. But this is just a speculation, so I’d stop here. 🙂


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